Thursday, May 1, 2008

Secret Honor

"Secret Honor" (Robert Altman, 1984) Okay, here's a wierd one for you. Altman, in one of his career slumps was teaching at the University of Minnesota Communications Department, and used the class to help film this one-man show with Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon and written by the guys who made the equally provocative but dramatically inert "Executive Action" back in 1973. Altman, in his commentary, basically begs off any credit, saying "I just pointed tha camera and came up with the video monitors, so I could cut away if I needed to." Nice strategy, though.

The play's the thing, however. And it's a bit of a toad. Nixon, post-retirement, goes into his study to record what...memoirs, instructions to the help, a defense strategy...what? All of them. He arms himself with a bottle of scotch and a gun. And starts to babble, his thoughts bouncing from one stray thought to the next, going over history, explaining his actions, sobbing over his family, railing against Kissinger, all in a stream of expletives undeleted that sound a bit like the way Nixon talked, but with far more dramatics. Nixon would speak in sentence fragments, off the cuff, in a stream of consciousness that's fascinating...and frustrating to listen to. But it was usually in a dull monotone, and certainly more cohesive. Here, Hall cranks the melodrama to eleven, and the sentence fragments are jammed into each other with much hesitation, his thoughts pinballing from thought to thought, and while it sustains the interest, it ain't too Nixonian.

But now, here's the thing. Clearly the movie was written by folks who despised the man, but more often than not, they take Nixon's side. Specifically, how Nixon post-WWII answered an ad in a California newspaper looking for a "young energetic man, preferably a veteran" to run for office. This "Gang of 100" as Nixon refers to them, are a deep-seated conspiracy of money-men, financiers, mobsters and hoity-toity's and presumably boogey-men who guide his career up to and including Watergate. Not quite the Mason's or the Illuminati, Nixon does their behest, and here he regrets his actions, including the assassination of Allende and his taking-on of the "whore-monger" Kissinger to steer his Ship of State. It becomes clear that his job for the evening is to fall on his sword for his Cabal, but by the end of the play, he has whipped himself into such a resentful state over the outcome of his life that, rather than eat a bullet, he instead raises a clenched fist in a triumphal act of stubborn defiance, shouting "Fuck 'em!!," and resembling those very anti-war protestors he so despised. For folks who didn't like the man, they sure end the thing on an heroically triumphal note. It is, after all, labeled "A Political Myth."

Still, it beats Oliver Stone's "Nixon" by a crooked mile.

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